Inspired by a true amateur

Image of Harry Eyres

The outpouring of emotion in the British press about the passing of the cricket commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins (CMJ) was surprising in more than one way. First, CMJ, at least in his commentating persona, was the epitome of the stiff-upper-lip Englishman, never descending to the ribaldry and low tone of other commentators. (Apparently, he was quite different and endearingly chaotic in his private persona, known for mistaking a television remote control for a mobile phone and inadvertently ejecting a set of golf-clubs from the back of a Mini Moke in Barbados.) The man who put stern limits to feeling in his professional capacity stirred up a lot of warm feeling in others.

Professional capacity, however, is not quite the right phrase. The greatest regret around the death of CMJ concerned the disappearance of a man who might just have been the last of the inspired amateurs. CMJ was not a professional cricketer; he never got further than captaining his school and university college sides, and so in the cricketing scheme of things he was rather nearer to the village trundler than to Shane Warne or Sachin Tendulkar.

For a long time now, the trend in sports commentary has been relentlessly professional. The almost universal assumption is that only people who have played a sport at the highest level have the ability, or the right, to commentate upon it. Though occasionally it works (as in the cases of Richie Benaud and John McEnroe) this seems questionable logic. Professionals may have a greater understanding of certain technical matters than amateurs; they may also suffer from a kind of professional deformation, a blinkered view that has lost sight of sport’s most noble and enlightening aspects. A classic example is the so-called “professional foul” in football, often applauded by professional commentators as “the only option”, but obviously a betrayal of any Corinthian ideals football might still aspire to.

But the over-reliance on professionals is misguided for a more obvious reason: whereas the medium of sport is physical skill, the medium of commentary is words. Employing someone who is exceptionally good at sport as a commentator is like employing an animal handler to paint animal pictures.

CMJ, who had only modest abilities as a batsman and bowler, was a precise exponent of the spare art of cricket commentary, never wasting words and often finding well-chosen ones. And though he was not as eloquent as certain other commentators on the game, such as the poet John Arlott, he obviously loved it, and loved every minute of his time in the commentary box.

If I appoint him as standard-bearer of the inspired amateurs, I hope he might posthumously lead them to victory over professionals in other fields. Amateur, in its origins, means lover. Amateurs are those who do what they do for the love of it; professionals do it – not necessarily ignominiously – for the money.

We have come, I think, to have an inverted sense of the relative values of amateurism and professionalism, not unconnected to the current crisis of valuation in which only monetary values are recognised. At the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont a few summers ago I was struck by something the talented young mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil said to me in passing: that she saw professional music-making as resting on, and entirely depending on, the great broad base of amateur music-making and music-loving.

That is not how we normally think: we are encouraged by the marketing people to believe that only the big stars matter, because only they make the big bucks. But even in monetary terms that argument can be turned around: the big bucks are composed of lots of little bucks; the stars would be nowhere without their fans.

The consumerist model sees active, immensely well-paid sporting or artistic stars passively watched from couches by voyeurs, who have given up their active birthright of participating in sport, or music, or drama. But that model is neither desirable nor even true. The genius of Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal rests on the enthusiasm of millions of club biffers. The same is even more true of music.

All over England, and other countries, amateurs participate in choirs (I only recently discovered that the modest wine writer of this paper is in one), orchestras and bands. They may not play or sing with the skill of Hough or Terfel, but they perform with love and fervour.

I’m no good at singing and my efforts at learning the cello ended in painful failure, but I do still play the piano with undaunted enthusiasm if no great skill. Over New Year with friends, I splashed through the piano duet versions of some Beethoven symphony slow movements. It was great fun, but above all an active engagement with the music. However ham-fisted, we amateurs matter – and in a peculiar way, just as much as the pros. The accident-prone Christopher Martin-Jenkins, with his passion for cricket, was a touching reminder of that.

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